Monthly Archives: March 2011

Preparing for an Interview: Cosmetic Changes

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It’s my first trip to Bluemercury. All the salesladies are too pretty–straight out of the pages of a glossy magazine. All the clients wear big diamonds. And lots of makeup. They all wear lots of perfectly applied, perfectly polished, perfectly perfect makeup, probably from Bluemercury.

In walks me.

Makeup-less. No diamond. Hair half-wet–it hasn’t seen a blowdryer or flat iron since the last time I went for a haircut. Eyebrows so-so: I have found a place to do them. A little mani/pedi place run by a Korean woman who says, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I know,” every time I try to tell her how I want my eyebrows done (but how does she know? I haven’t told her yet!). She’s cheap, but not great.

All these details I notice in the many mirrors that adorn Bluemercury. They add up to one thing: I don’t fit in here.

WHY am I in a chic little makeup store?

It began with an invitation for a campus visit. Campus visits, for those who aren’t familiar with this form of academic interview, involve affairs that last a day or two or more, where you eat, drink, and breathe the college you are hoping will hire you. You have coffee with the faculty. You give a talk about your research. Maybe give a mock class. Get questions about your talk and class. Endure the official “interview” phase of the interview, where the committee members and other interested faculty take aim and launch questions at you from the trenches. Then there’s lunch: more chatting with faculty, more questions. A campus tour. Along the way you might learn about things like salary and benefits, or you might have a meeting with a dean about them. You might meet with the provost. You might meet with graduate students, or undergraduate students, or both. Every sip of coffee and word you let pass your lips: they’re on trial. It can be exhilarating; it will be exhausting.

Before going on the interview, I knew I had to survey my materials. Of both kinds: the academic kind (practicing job talks, preparing answers to standard questions, reviewing the university’s website) so I can come across as smart and interesting, and the physical kind (suit, shoes, makeup) so I can come across as sophisticated.

The academic materials I readied in short order. As for the personal materials, I could use changes that are more than cosmetic. But alas, time is short. I’m not about to go for a Botox fix (“Are you angry?” Cool J frequently asks. Damn furrow). So I pick the flaw that requires the smallest solution–and what’s smaller than a tube of lipstick?

And that’s why I’m here. Yes, when Nancy Botwin said I was the lowest maintenance woman she’d ever met, she was probably right. What woman of a certain age, as I suppose I now am, does not own a lipstick?

The saleslady approaches me. I tell her I’m looking for a lipstick–and that’s it. She looks me over. “You have wonderful skin!” she declares. “You’re right. All you need is a lipstick. Have you tried Crazed by Chanel? Everyone is truly crazed about it.” I try Crazed. “It’s good!” she says. She’s right. It’s good. I head for the cash register.

“Wait!” she calls. “What’s the occasion?”

“An interview.”

“OH.”

“What?”

“Well, you don’t want to look–you know–dead at the interview, right?”

“That would be bad.”

“I just mean a little blush might help you look, well, more, um, alive.”

“How much is the blush?”

“$45.”

$45 for the blush that makes me look not dead. $34 for lipstick, which every woman should own. I hesitate. She finds an opening: “Listen, you have great skin, and you really barely need a thing. You have a mascara, right?” It’s old and clumpy. I nod yes. “And foundation?” I shake my head. She frowns. “Well, you really don’t need much foundation. A tinted cream would do the trick. A tinted cream would keep you hydrated and smooth out your skin. And give you SPF protection. It’s like three products for one” (but more like one product for the price of three). “A bit of tinted cream, a bit of eyeliner, mascara, blush, and Crazed. You’ll be perfect.”

Perfect.

I look at the blush. I look at my wallet. I open my mouth. I close it. I decide to be strong. I lengthen my spine and say, “I’ll take the lipstick. I mean, for now. Maybe I’ll come back for the blush.”

I am very proud of myself when I walk out only $34 poorer.

I head straight to CVS, where I buy Physicians Formula blush. It’s $5 and must be good since physicians clearly came up with the formula. I come home and try it on. It’s hot pink. I mean, hot pink. I wear it all day. No one tells me I look more alive. Then again, no one tells me I look dead (again).

Forget being a college prof–the next day I break out so badly I could probably walk into the high school across the street and get mistaken for the new kid in the freshman class. So much for coming across as sophisticated.

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There are Jews in My House

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IN another era, or with different parents (even Uncle and Aunty Frumster.com would do), LL could have been a formidable Talmudic scholar. He sways when he speaks. He reasons in singsong. He puzzles through quandaries with passion and patience, working each to its logical conclusion. My five-year-old son sometimes strokes an invisible beard.

There are and will be, no doubt, other intellectual outlets for this would-be-bocher (my own vision includes him becoming a doctor who uses his powers of money-making for the good of the world–say, repairing fistulas on women who have been excommunicated from their tribes in Africa). Seeing as he was born and therefore constantly subjected to the kind of people who would choose to give him the name of one of the great scientists to defy the theistic worldview, it is probably unsurprising that despite his frummy inclinations, he has more than once found himself arguing with his kindergarten Hebrew school teachers who dared to use the masculine pronoun in reference to God.

On the other hand, what better way to rebel against parents who spout heresy than becoming a rabbi? Preferably an Orthodox one?

He can tell me my clothes are too skanky–

My dishes aren’t kosher enough–

And I should put a shmata on my head–

He can tell me he has to leave his twelve babies at my house on Shabbos because there’s no eruv to push them around in strollers.

An Orthodox rabbi: it’s worse than a gun-toting Republican!

Today as he was reciting the Fibonacci Sequence, shokeling as he is wont to do, I interrupted him to ask if he would like to try public school. As luck would have it, there’s one across the street! A good one! He wouldn’t have to travel halfway across the state in a bus that might one day, like yesterday, decide to be 1.5h late, leaving me to wait in an empty parking lot with a crying, hungry, sockless baby and 3 year old who had nothing to do to amuse himself while waiting but repeatedly pee on a tree. (“That tree’s going to grow so big and strong, Mama!”). His friends would be our neighbors, and if they fed him a McPorko sandwich layered with animal-rennet muenster and calamari, followed by smores made with gelatin-puffs, wouldn’t that be a small price to pay in exchange for him attending a free, close (good!) school and slim chance of him becoming a rabbi-son who won’t call me up on a telephone on a Saturday until Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov lit up the sky?

LL immediately veered from “17711, 28657, 46368 . . .” to “Ma Neshtana” as though I had flicked a light-switch. There was an inherent threat in that conversion from numbers in the 10 thousands to 4 little questions. I shut up.

I think we had better stick to Jewschool. At least there he’ll question authority–

as he did recently: “Why did you say God is here and God is there? Didn’t you know that Nietzsche killed him??”

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Fiction: “Inside the Life of a Harlequin Heroine” by Poor Princess (Part I)

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“So, what’s it like?”

“Like anything else. It’s a job. We all have to work for a living, don’t we?”

“But, it must be so glamorous! So exciting!”

“Most of the time it’s pretty dull, actually. What can I say? There are occasional perks. Travel, for one. A reputation that precedes you, making you feel like you’re hot shit. But . . . I don’t know. Mostly boring stuff. Warm, fuzzy, family shit with humdrum work crap on the side—vanilla ice cream and hot apple pie. And . . . . well, I guess you could say there’s a little bit of whipped cream on top, you know what I’m saying? You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t! Do tell.”

“Oh, if I have to spell it out . . . A morsel of masturbation material, that’s all. Just enough to make a girl feel creamy.”

Andover, Massachusetts has been transformed into a winter wonderland. It is early. Dawn has broken but Concord Lane is silent, with only the hushed whispers of long-dead ghosts who once wandered here, perhaps after tossing their tea into the harbor or putting the latest witch on trial. Leila is the first one outside, and she pulls her mother by the hand into the crystalline paradise. The two smile at each other and appear as mirror-images. Both sport long thick dark tresses, Mediterranean skin, and soft pink lips turned up at the corners; they differ only by their 20-year age difference and the color of their eyes. Where her mother has two coffee beans for eyes, warm, soothing, and full of love and comfort, young Leila has inherited her father’s two bright, shiny Irish emeralds that catch the light and reveal a hint of impishness in her.

Right now there is something impish in the eyes of both mother and daughter. “Race you!” calls out Leila’s mother, and begins to run, without letting go of her daughter’s hand.  The two dark figures run, hand in hand, up the hill of white that is now their front yard. They fall onto their sides simultaneously and roll down the hill, shouting and laughing and breaking the cold New England silence.

“Mother, I’m freezing!” shouts Leila at the bottom, trying to catch her breath between convulsive giggles. She pulls long strands of black hair out of her eyes, searching for the source of that echoing laugh that meets her own. “Mother? Mother!” She begins to dig in the sparkling white mound before her. “Mother! Mother! Mother! Where are you?” Mother!” Her voice becomes imperious. “Mother, come out of that snow bank right now!” Snow begins to fall, rapidly picking up pace and heading, it seems, directly into Leila’s widespread green eyes. “Mother!” she yells, nervous now. “I hear you, Mother! I hear you!”

But Leila could not see her mother. As the snow fell thicker and harder, Leila struggled and at last slipped into the cold white void, still hearing her mother’s soft, kind laugh ringing in her ears.

And then she awoke. Shivering. Crying.

Why had her mother left her?

I don’t really have these nightmares, and my mother is actually alive, a sturdy-shoed flat-jowled woman who has never been satisfied with her life. But the female literary role models dictate a dead mother—the cute ones like Annie and Anne of Green Gables, the nymphette Lolita, the strong-headed Belle of the Ball, Scarlett, and every last lady of fairytaleland.  So “Leila” will have a dead mother, and a dramatic story to go with it.

I am not a nurse, a nanny, or a model, but there is pressure for me to play one. Here is a little of my true tale: Born Marie-Thérèse Charron, I am the granddaughter of Woonsocket, Southbridge, and Lowell millworkers, immigrants from Trois Rivières, Saint-Ours and Chicoutimi, and residents of local Petits Canadas. French-speaking devout Catholics that they were, these blue-collar Quebecois believers raised rebellious sons and daughters who dreamed of an America they didn’t quite live in. Grace Metalious exposed the hypocrisy of their small town lives, and Jack Kerouac channeled his Canuck alienation into a dark, ethnic figure who had to share his road story with an all-American Gene Autry-like modern cowboy. But these rebels settled down and began to breed, too, more devoted to the bottle than the parish, and what more can I say? Little Marie-Thérèse lived a pretty normal life; I can’t complain much. Birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, new clothes for the first day of school, the afterschool job at Hollywood Video. A father who went on week-long binges and threw plates in anger, and once put his fist through the drywall in the hallway. A brother who got a girl pregnant at fifteen and took off, who knows where. He stays out of the story. A brother who was what people called “simple”; he swept up hair at an old-fashioned barbershop, and collected it in clear plastic bags, daily labeled, nobody knew why.  A brother who got high so often he became a weed connoisseur, grower of Jack Herer, White Widow Bio, BubbleGum, Purple Haze; he would one day compete at the Cannabis Cup Competition in Amsterdam with his special breed, Black Velvet. A mother who never approved of her daughter’s choices. Boys with bad acne, back-alley blowjobs, a 12-year-old K car. It was an American life.

On her twenty-second birthday, a radiant Leila Kelly clutched a Harvard degree in her right hand. As her father called out, “One, two . . .,” she quickly smoothed her long dark hair—her mother’s hair—tussled by the cap-toss, and grabbed her two older brothers to be by her side in the picture. It was important that they share this day with her. Neither had gone to college—it hadn’t been an option when they were growing up. After their mother’s death, the Kelly family had suffered greatly. When Leila was four, their family left their pretty colonial neighborhood in Andover for a dark corner of industrial blue-collar Lowell. John Kelly left his law practice to become a factory worker. “I needed to be doing something with my hands,” he told Leila when she was older. “I just didn’t want to think anymore. I wanted something brainless; I wanted something I could throw myself into, so that I wouldn’t have to think of your mother. Of my Maryam. My Persian Princess.” When Patrick and Gerald finished high school—and John certainly made sure his two sons did that much—they both joined their father for long days of hard labor in the factory—and long nights of hard drinking in O’Reilley’s. But no one would let Leila suffer the same fate. “You’re the Persian princess, now,” Patrick explained one day, “for all of us.” And as such, all the money that didn’t go to the foul-smelling whiskey that Leila so despised was deposited into an ever-growing account intended for one purpose only: Leila’s college tuition.

Leila knew the day she marched in Harvard Yard should be the happiest day of her life, but she couldn’t help having mixed feelings. Glancing at her two brothers—both white-skinned carrot-tops like their father—she felt love and gratefulness. They had sacrificed so much for her. But she also felt sadness. Why had it been necessary to “sacrifice” so much for her?  Leila often wondered. Patrick and Gerald were older than Leila and had suffered the loss of their mother much harder. Had they, too, felt the need to pour their sadness into their work? Her brothers had been full of potential. Patrick had been a straight-A student throughout his school years and had earned a full scholarship to Boston College. A scholarship he had turned down. And Gerald could play the trumpet like no one but Louis Armstrong could. He couldn’t tell a music note from a Japanese character, but put his instrument in his mouth and the glories and wonders of New Orleans jazz floated out like magic. The trumpet converted the woes of the world into wonders. All his anger and all his anguish went into that trumpet, and the result was sheer heaven.

And then there was Father. There was no one in the world Leila wanted to please more than John. Headstrong and stubborn, yet loving and tender, John was Leila’s hero.  Despite his propensity for drink brought on by the death of his loved one, he was a man of values, and he was sure to pass on those values to his most precious possession: his daughter.  John taught Leila to work hard, to do good in the world, and to cherish her family. And he taught her something else, not through words, but through his life—that for every person, there is a partner, a soulmate, a “one true love.” It was for this reason that John had never married again. It was for this reason that he had given up his life of law and luxury when his wife died. For at that moment, his life died.


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Parenting Tips: Threats

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I confess to being fond of the threat in the commercial above. Three kids in, I’m no expert on threatening my kids. Hell, the idea of “threatening” sounds awful to me. But somehow I find I do it all the time anyway. So what works? We all know the classic threats: “No TV for a week,” “You need a time-out,” and “YOU SEE THIS BELT?” . . . which we might say have varying degrees of effectiveness.

So too my own methods. Which do not involve my grasping at my belt buckle (not that I actually wear a belt). I’ve discovered a few things work–at least on my kids–when it comes to discipline and a few things that don’t . . .

Now, all kids respond differently. In fact, even my own kids don’t necessarily respond to our threats the same way. Full disclosure: pretty much everything here is in regard to LL. And moreover: LL is big on punishment. He will often preemptively declare “Punish me!” after jumping on Cool J’s head and farting on it (How many times do I have to say: “Your bum is not Anakin and that fart is not your lightsaber!”?) or stapling together the pages of the novel I was (was) reading (it wasn’t that good anyway — the kid was probably doing me a favor). If I’m not quick enough, he’ll self-punish by locking himself in his room and declaring that he is a horrible, hateful child that we couldn’t possibly love, and if we still ignore him, he’ll throw out his favorite toys.

Cool J is unpunishable. If I say, “If don’t you get in the car RIGHT NOW, you’re not getting the Lego Death Star for your 16th birthday,” (he will forget by then, right??), he’ll reply, agonizingly slowly, reaching up to hold my hand, and pulling me down to look into his eyes, “Mama. I’m just 3. Please be patient. I’m still learning to be quick.” If I say, “You just put your chocolate-covered hand on my white skirt. No more dessert for you!” he’ll smile up at me and say, “Mama, you’re sooooo pretty, especially when you wear your black skirt like Darth Vader.” And if I say, “YOU JUST STEPPED ON THE BABY’S HEAD! I’M GOING TO–” I’ll get smothered in hugs and kisses before I can finish my threat and inundated with “I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU FOREVER, MAMA!!!” (the “forever,” for the record, comes from that classic how-to-make-your-sappy-mother-cry children’s book, Love You Forever, which Cool J asks me to read over and over again: “I want to see Mama cry again”–big grin–“and I want to see the boy flush his mama’s watch down the toilet–and I want to know what bad words the boy said when his gramma came to visit. Will you tell me the bad words?”)

So for LL, anyway, here’s what’s effective:

1. “That’s it! If you do that one more time, you can’t do your homework tonight!” (I swear, it works. Not only that, it makes them think that homework is a great treat that they have to earn, on par with chocolate ice cream and dried apricots . . . the latter, I admit, another little trick–one learned from none other than the infamous Anna Oh). (Incidentally, I told LL that the standard rule in many places is 10 minutes of homework for every grade he’s in–1st grade, 10 minutes; 2nd grade, 20 minutes; 3rd grade, 30 minutes, etc. He excitedly reported: “In 12th grade, you get 120 minutes, which is also TWO HOURS, and then Mama, I don’t know how much in university, but by the time you finish university, you get TWENTY-FOUR HOURS A DAY OF HOMEWORK TO DO WHILE YOU SIT AROUND AND DRINK TEA THE WHOLE TIME!!”–which is not a terrible summation of his parents’ lives).

2. “Get off your brother right now! OK, you know what’ll happen if you continue: we are skipping [fill in the blank here with your kid’s birthday] January 23. From now on, you have no birthday. The calendar is going to go from January 22 to January 24.” (This one leads to BIG tears and immediate obedience) (If you do Christmas, December 24 to December 26 would be equally brilliant).

3. (Similar to #2): “Now you’ve done it. There is no L [or whatever your kid’s name starts with] in the alphabet anymore. From now on, the alphabet runs HIJKMNO . . . Drop that Leap Frog Scribble and Write if you’re even thinking of writing an L” (I don’t say “Thou Whoreson EL! Thou Unnecessary Letter!” because that seems a bit much, even if it is paraphrasing the bard).

And 3 of our less effective methods:

1. This one came out by accident, and it’s the kind of thing a parent is NEVER supposed to say (Imsorryimsorryimsorryimsorry):

“I’m going to kill you!!”

To which I got a very lengthy reply: “You are? You’re going to kill me? How are you going to kill me? Are you going to use a lightsaber? Are you going to freeze me? Are you going to run me over with our car? Are you going to shoot me? Do you have a sword? Am I the bad guy or are you the bad guy? I want to be the bad guy. Are you allowed to kill me? Are you going to go to jail? Can I be Generalis Greivous? Can I be the Emperor? I want to be the Emperor.”

2. (To Cool J, so naturally ineffective, but I’ll note it because it’s not going to send me to hell, like #1–I think): “That’s it! If you can’t listen to me, I’m going to put you in the recycling box. And if they recycle you into paper, I’m going to write all over you, and then I’m going to put you back into the recycling box. And if they recycle you into a bottle, I’m going to drink water out of you, and then I’m going to put you back in the recycling box. And if–“

Cool J: “Mama, I’m just going to put you in the toilet, poo on your head, and flush you down. And you won’t come back.”

3. (And the last of the ineffective threats — this was purely The Scientist’s invention, and he claimed, like a good parent, he really would follow through on his threat): “If you don’t stop whining, I’m going to put you in the microwave.”

As you might imagine, knowing what you do about LL, he lay on the ground, curled up in a ball (the better to fit), and demanded “Put me in. Put me in, Dada!” In fact, this happens quite a bit. He’ll barely be breaking into a sulk when a look is shot his way, and Bam!–he’s down on the ground, fetal position, waiting . . . We might have to break this habit before Child and Family Services finds out about it . . .

So, there you go: parenting tips from someone who clearly knows, you know, not a whole lot.


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Commercial Watch II

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This commercial seems to sum up Woman’s Existence:

I blogged about it over at Technorati, but I screwed up posting the actual commercial. So here you go, in all its excitement. Have a blast ogling women ogling shirts their working husbands get to wear to do their jobs (in the real world! where they make money! and use their brains!) and they get to clean (their jobs! no money! no brains!).

WooHoo! Yay for Women’s Lib! Simone de Beauvoir was SO right in 1949 when she said “Enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism, now practically over”–that’s right–OVER. Except that when had it ever begun? Did I miss the memo? Did Clorox?

Oh, silly me. Clorox made the men a bunch of dummies. THAT must be their feminist commentary (?!).

And for those of you who couldn’t be bothered to read my Technorati article, here is a beautiful picture of me doing what woman apparently does best:

Commercial Watch Part I: The Hebrew Ladies of Brooklyn

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Much of my TV watching happens at the gym. I go to the Y. The Y, here in this princely town, barely grades a C-: 4 working treadmills on a good day, 3 or 4 bikes,  and a couple of elliptical machines are all crammed into a space roughly equivalent to that of my living room and set on a sweat-dampened carpet that should probably get Febreezed every so often. No individual TV screens. Magazines? There’s an Entertainment Weekly featuring Sawyer and a sneak-peek into the last season of Lost on the front cover. A Woman’s World promising the year’s best Christmas recipes. A 2009 New Yorker I’ve now read cover-to-cover at least 3 times. But no matter. The membership is relatively cheap; there’s a pool; and two lovely ladies watch the kids in a little playroom while mom or dad works out.

There are 3 TVs to watch at the Y, and no remote control. So here are my options: on the far left, CNN; in the middle, ESPN (and hence, my blindspot); on the right, which I generally end up in front of, Kathie Lee and Hoda. I have no idea what they’re actually saying, but I see them giggling, attempting to toss their shellacked hair, and clasping their hands together tightly on top of their legs also held together tightly. Perhaps with audio, I would find the show genuinely stimulating (is it possible?), but without, I can only concentrate on the movements of their high-gloss lips and flickering extend-a-lashes.

Ultimately, I’ve discovered something far more interesting than Hoda and KLG. The commercials.

Today I want to write about one I have watched numerous times, studying it frame by frame as I bounce along on the treadmill:

This MJHS commercial caught my attention for a series of reasons.

To begin with, it was the sepia. I am a sucker for anything that looks old. Then there’s the Mother of Exiles, the mighty woman with a torch, at the sea-washed, sunset gates. One year, my commute had me taking the subway over the Manhattan bridge every evening around sunset. How many times did I get all teary-eyed looking out at that Lady, glowing in the last light of the day, just beyond the Brooklyn Bridge (and I wasn’t even pregnant!)? There she is, offering refuge for the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse, the masses–whom we see–heads covered, indistinct, huddled over their belongings, also indistinct. Their new stomping grounds (my old stomping grounds) appear in bold at their backs: BROOKLYN.

From those immigrants, we move to the second set of women–elegant, established, hair dressed, necks adorned, American, contained in their frames of gilt and brass. These are not just any women: they are Jewish women. There is Webelovsky and Rosenthal, Berlin and Groden. And what did these women do from behind the glass? They “saw the despair.”

And here we have it again: Jewish women. The first set.

Both sets are Jewish women, but the women who appear in the first and third set, at the forefront, are not like those who keep to the safety of celluloid. These are old women, immigrant women, women adorned by babushkas and sheitels, arms weighted down with sacks and bundles. What is the story here? Is this a story of evolution? Are these indigent, religious women saved by the progressive American women who “saw the despair”? In the next generation, will their daughters, too, be able to retreat to their picture-perfect sanctuaries?

Is that the story being told by the series of sepia images for the Brooklyn Ladies Hebrew Home for the Aged?

Which no longer goes by that name. In a move made famous by Victor Fleming 72 years ago, the screen shifts from sepia to color, and a new name appears: MJHS (and in small, “Metropolitan Jewish Health System,” the name that was the transition-name between a locally-specific, ethnically-specific, gender-specific institution-specific name, and the acronym that means nothing).

The shift is to the present, and the new name indicates a new world.

From this:

To this:

And this:

And this:

Who are these people that are not Aged? Where is the Hebrew? Why have all the caregivers become people of color?

Except for this “Hebrew” woman–

who shares the “minority” status of the other 2011 women because she’s visibly frum.

I guess most Jewish women, particularly the secular ones, are above caregiving these days.

Except for these angels, who have found their places in our heavens–according to and on our gym TVs:

Aim Below the Mark

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I’ve failed to Get! A! Job! It must be because I like books too much. I want to be curled up under my blankets with a big fat novel, or, since that doesn’t really offer money for lattés or healthcare benefits, how awesome would it be to be paid to stand in front of a group of readers and talk about Lolita as a parody of 18th-century porn (hello, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure! You are a scintillating read!) and a response to the trial of Joyce’s Ulysses?

If it’s not my love of reading, it must be my reluctance to settle for all those awful jobs out there–you know, the ones where they tell you what to do or make you come in to work every day. Really, better to just stay home and stare out the window, salivating when people stroll by my house carrying their skinny cinnamon dolcé lattés with extra foam (or so I imagine the contents of those Starbucks cups to be).

So there they are: work authorization aside, my two stumbling blocks to gainful employment. And they were borne out of the same pubescent period in my life. Eighth grade.

I was 14 and ready for something, and there he was, a teacher to stir my soul: Mr. Detroit, the passionate, imposing man in a gray (or brown) flannel shirt (adorned, simply, by a silver whistle on a lanyard). He had a sonorous laugh, a deep resounding voice, and a jolly demeanor that barely masked the storms that brewed beneath. If I said someone was bothering me–me, his pet–he wouldn’t scold that pest or send him to the principal’s office. He wouldn’t threaten detention or a dunce hat. He would pick up the pest’s desk, pest still in it, and throw it through the door and into the hallway. Then he would follow. The door would slam behind him. And we would all hold our breaths as the shouts echoed through the halls and under our door into our classroom, where all of us, his students made mute and meek, would have been petrified into a museum exhibit of sorry statues: a now-docile David, and a white-lipped Venus, a hangdog Hermes, a thought-free Thinker, and a once august Caesar Augustus.

Then he would return: eyes sparkling, goofy smile. “Where were we?”

That temper killed him.

He was from Detroit. I imagine that he came to Canada, Mr. Detroit, dodging the draft sometime in the early 70s, and he met a wife, landed a job, had some kids, settled there. Became one of us, without forgetting that motor city whose madness had made him who he was. He told us how his city had burned one day in 1967. He played us Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July.”

Mr. Detroit was an English teacher, a genre known to me, but not. He was in every way unlike my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Baltimore, a teacher who favored daily lessons on language mechanics with never a thought to what that language or those mechanics could do, and whose Southern accent intoning the phrase “If all else fails, read the instructions” drove me to distraction (and to a C in English). Mr. Detroit loathed teaching grammar. Once a week, to fulfill curricular duties, he would put a sentence or two on the board and ask us to identify the subject and predicate, or the nouns and verbs. Usually his sentences were very short:

“Dog bit boy.”

“Boy bit dog.”

Then he would quickly move on to the kind of English that inspired him–and us. Every Friday, he would have us perform a scene from a Shakespeare play. I was Cordelia. And Juliet. I was Beatrice, and Portia, and Lady Macbeth. And Viola. And Katherine before she was tamed.

Those were some of the perks of being the teacher’s pet. A role I received, incidentally, purely by virtue of being the sister of Nancy Botwin, who was the kind of student who always sat in the front of the class, always did her homework, and always raised her hand for every question. The kind of student, in other words, who was as much like me as Mrs. Baltimore was like Mr. Detroit.

At the end of the year, we graduated. I handed my yearbook to Mr. Detroit, and I asked him to sign it. He did. I closed the book as I had after each person had signed it, determined to savor their words at some later date when the world of junior high was long behind me. I was a romantic even then.

After graduation, we went on to sleepaway camp, and then to high school. I thought I would go back to visit Mr. Detroit. I had every intention of it. But it was my first year of high school, and I was busy. I had new friends and new hobbies. I didn’t drive. Then I heard a rumor that he had left the school, and I didn’t know where he was. Then he was dead.

I ripped through the pages of my yearbook to find what he written, not even a year before his death, to discover his words of wisdom, or a mark of his favoritism. But all he had left me was a cliché: “Aim above the mark.”

Shit.

You wouldn’t think a line like that would do much for me, but you’re wrong. It dogs me now, when I think of applying to be a barista (all those free skinny cinnamon dolcé lattés with extra foam) or a librarian’s assistant. Shouldn’t I stop applying to those tenure-track jobs and Society of Fellows fellowships, stop aiming above the mark? Maybe if I aimed below, I’d actually succeed.

But no, I’m stuck with that cliché–which has a literary origin, by the way. It was derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature“: “Aim above the mark, to hit the mark.” The section goes on: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration.” Brilliant, isn’t it?

That wasn’t a lesson on Lolita, but it’ll have to do for today.